The problem I would like to fix is one of abject loneliness felt among certain groups in society. There has been a loneliness pandemic in the UK long before COVID-19. This is a hidden disease which is debilitating in itself but can also give rise to physical health problems and shorten lives. Among some people and cultures, it is a taboo subject, and some do not even realise that they live in its grip. The self-isolation necessary because of lockdowns, plus our politically divided society only exacerbate the situation. Two groups in society who I witness battling with loneliness are the elderly and younger adults who are newly arrived in the UK. Fixing this problem will not only lead these individuals to a better place of mental health but will lead to better cohesion and tolerance in our communities.
I work as a public service interpreter (English-French) and I teach public service interpreting to interpreters representing a huge variety of world language communities in the UK. Our clientele may be non- or limited English speakers and they include refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. There might be a Congolese young woman who was a victim of torture in her war-torn homeland, or a young Lithuanian man trying to carve out a new life by working in this new country.
These new arrivals feel lost, vulnerable, and silenced. They have the right to live in this country, yet they often do not feel part of it. The laws, customs, and language are quite alien. They need to learn how to navigate our public services: transport, health, education, housing, immigration, employment. They bring with them their other ways of doing things – from the food they eat, to the time they eat and the programmes they watch on TV. These differences can lead to mistrust and intolerance on both sides. Back home, they may be pharmacists, civil engineers, teachers, but their qualifications are not recognised here, and their lack of English holds them back. They want to set down roots, create a family and contribute to the wider society.
At the other end of society are millions of retired and old people who crave friendship, a purpose in their lives and who still have much to offer society. Many of these elderly people feel isolated and cast aside. They too might have held a respected job, but they no longer have that identity.
These two groups have one thing in common: loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic means they can spend days without interaction with another human being. Activities which were once face to face are now done remotely, sometimes typed online: a consultation with a GP; a query with the bank; a discussion with a teacher. The opportunities to converse with another human being become fewer. In turn we become less practised and start to withdraw.
There is now surely an opportunity here to link these two groups. There is already much evidence of successful partnering schemes which link retired people who volunteer to read to young children in schools. Others have successfully been partnered with university students as part of befriending schemes to combat loneliness. A scheme which partners an elderly person with someone who wants to improve their English would be mutually beneficial. I encounter many limited English-speaking immigrants who are taking English classes but do not have any opportunity to practise the language with an English-speaker outside of their weekly lessons. They lack the confidence to try, ‘my accent is too strong…I’m so slow and people are always in a rush…my grammar is terrible…people won’t like that I sound foreign…’
During the first lockdown when much of the country stood still and we came to our doorsteps to clap the heroes, there was a welcome feeling of togetherness. Our country was united in a common cause, when for a long time it has felt very divided. Brexit and the ensuing topics of immigration and sovereignty, Northern Ireland borders and Scottish independence all threaten to destabilise and pit us against each other. We must seize this moment to remember that 8pm closeness and eagerness to help our neighbour to create something lasting and wide-reaching. Many older people do have the time and the patience to help someone else to improve.
The gains of such a scheme would reach far beyond combating loneliness. The opportunity to get to know someone from a different background to you is priceless. It leads to a mutual understanding of different cultures. It encourages tolerance and helps integration, whilst at the same time, allowing both sides to be heard. These new arrivals have so much to learn from our longer established members of society. I have witnessed the confidence, happiness and self-worth that comes from feeling settled in your new home. A sense of belonging and having the equal opportunity to access all that is available to those born here can only come from speaking the language.
This scheme could learn from befriending programmes mentioned above. In lockdown there would have to be remote meetings via a virtual platform: one hour per week of chatting in English. I suggest providing ideas and templates for structured conversations. There would be some initial costs involved: basic computer skills would need to be offered in order to access these platforms. Participants would sign up to a register so that safeguarding protocols can be observed, such as obtaining a DBS certificate. Once we are liberated by the vaccines, perhaps these meetings could take place face to face at community clubs.
As a teacher of multicultural adults, I am certain that the outcome of such partnerships leads to a realisation that we all have more in common than what separates us. As an interpreter I know that it is only through language that we can give a voice to each UK citizen. If we can achieve this while tapping into the experience of the older generation, then we can help new citizens integrate and fix loneliness along the way.